How does laughter affect learning?

01 enthusedHumor was not my initial intention. I had collected a number of paired items to demonstrate the concept of a logo as a symbol, including a heavy sign from an upscale realty company complete with wooden post. The college students soon caught on to how a logo provides more than information. It also elicits a feeling. As I held up the realtor sign for them to compare to the generic “For Sale” placard, I asked “What would you call this?” From the back of the room came the response “Stolen.” A series of giggles and snorting guffaws rolled through the class.

I could have protested. Having legitimately borrowed the sign from the local realtor’s office rather than sneakily removing one from a neighbor’s yard, I was no thief. But I did not complain. The bit of humor grabbed those whose attention had wandered. A joke is definitely a way to wake up a group growing drowsy from too much information. However, the incident left me wondering if laughing actually helps people learn?

Imagine two different scenarios: one class in which the instruction is always logical and serious; another class in which the instructor frequently interject jokes that tangentially deal with the subject. In which class do students learn more? It depends both on how the comedy relates to the course and to the students. Researcher Melissa Bekelja Wanzer, , of Canisius College finds inappropriate humor, especially that which is directed at students, interferes with learning.

One of the first rules is too make sure the humor, used inside the class or on-line communication, is not offensive. Mark Shatz, and Frank LoSchiavo, Ohio University-Zanesville psychology professors, discovered that when a professor used self-deprecating jokes, and appropriate subject-related cartoons their students utilized the online instructional system more and also said they enjoyed the class more. However Wanzer warned that repeatedly putting oneself down could lead students to view the instructor as less competent.

Secondly, comedy must fit in with the course material. Wasner found that when professors use a dry sense of humor when instructing, the students perceived them as better communicators. In the same manner doctors who occasionally spoke in a witty manner were viewed more favorably by their patients. However most of the studies on how humor affect learning end up with mixed results. Possibly because what each person finds as sufficient, but not overdone humor is different.

John Hopkins University professor, Ron Berk, PhD, uses humorous skits to promote learning in his biostatistics class. His goal is to help students with different learning styles see how statistics work and encourage divergent learning that is applicable in real life. But humor’s role in relieving stress is what makes it valuable in his estimation. “It helps relieve fear and reduce anxiety…prior to or during an exam, humorous directions or test items may relieve students’ tension and help them perform better.”

So remember to keep your best, most relevant joke to tell just before that killer exam.

Shatz,, Mark and LoSchiavo , Frank, Teaching of Psychology, Vol. 32, No. 4, pages 246-248, 2005
Stambor, Zak. How laughing leads to learning. Monitor , Vol 37, No. 6, June 2006
Wasner, Melissa. “Use of Humor in the Classroom” In Our Teaching Behavior, Communication Education, 48—62
This entry was posted in Creativity, Educational trends, Laughter and humor and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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